Turkish President Recep Erdogan has followed up on his threat of retaliation against Syria’s army. Two Syrian warplanes have reportedly been shot down, while the airspace over the Idlib province has been closed.
Operation Spring Shield
The next stage of escalation in the Syrian war has occurred. After the airstrikes against the Turkish military on Thursday in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib — which cost the lives of many soldiers — Turkey launched Operation Spring Shield, a military offensive against the Syrian army in the north of the neighboring country with the goal of “ending the Syrian regime’s massacres.”
The campaign was confirmed by the Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar in a television speech on Sunday.
Turkey Has Hit Syrian Forces Extremely Hard
According to the Turkish Ministry of Defense, the Turkish military has so far destroyed, inter alia, a Syrian government drone, eight helicopters, and 103 Syrian government tanks. In addition, more than 2,000 Syrian soldiers were reportedly “incapacitated.” The Syrian Human Rights Observatory said on Saturday evening that Turkish attacks have killed more than 70 Syrian soldiers.
Meanwhile, Syrian news reports that Turkish soldiers also shot down two Russian warplanes in northwest Syria. The jets were targeted via Idlib. The four pilots saved themselves with parachutes and landed safely, the official news agency Sana reported on Sunday. Syria previously announced the closure of the airspace over the country’s northwest region, announcing that any plane or drone there would be classified as hostile and shot down. The Ministry of Defense in Moscow, however, dismissed Turkish reports of the shooting down of any fighter jet of the Russian Air Force as “fake news.”
The Fog of War
All figures and the respective descriptions by the actors involved should, however, be treated with caution since, as is so often the case in conflicts accurate information is hard to come by and propaganda is plentiful.
Nevertheless, with Turkey’s statements, the government now publicly acknowledged for the first time that it has conducted a large-scale deployment of its army. However, in his speech, the Defense Minister emphasized that his country had “neither the desire nor the intention” to enter into direct conflict with the Kremlin. The latter is highly relevant since Moscow is allied with Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad and supports him militarily. However, the implications of this escalation go far beyond the Turkish border and into the EU. Here it is hoped that Akar’s statements regarding Russia are accurate, since NATO has no interest in Turkey triggering Article 5. Moreover, Putin and Erdogan — who have established a closer relationship over the past year — should also have little interest in direct conflict.
Erdogan’s Threats to Syria: You Will ‘Pay the Price’
Nevertheless, President Erdogan had recently issued sharp warnings to Russia and Syria. In a phone call to President Vladimir Putin Friday, he said that Russia should “avoid Turkey” in Syria. Syria, in turn, would “pay the price” for the deaths of Turkish soldiers.
Thirty-three Turkish soldiers were killed in the airstrikes on Thursday, and another died on Friday. Assad has been leading an offensive with Russia since the end of last year in Idlib. There are many active Islamist and jihadist militias there, some of which are supported by the Turkish.
At the request of Greece, the EU’s foreign ministers will meet this week for a special meeting on the escalation of the conflict in Syria. This was announced by the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. However, Borrell did not yet provide an exact date. Moreover, given the EU’s recent track record on this issue, anything but hoping for peace and calling for de-escalation is likely out of reach for them. They will be nothing but bystanders in a war that has a direct impact on their continent.